Vandals and memorials

Waiting for a train to take me back to Dublin in a nice wee pub near Dundalk train station today, I caught the front page of the Dundalk Argus – a newspaper I’d never seen (or heard of) before. The headline story: a memorial to a hunger striker, Brendan Hughes, which was only recently erected in Omeath, had been smashed to pieces. It looked like it was a beautiful memorial: a small stone bench at a place – Long Woman’s Grave –  where, I assume, there must be a lovely view to take in. [The article is here but you need to register and login to access the Argus web site].

Like most other people, no doubt, I asked: Why would anyone do such a thing? Maybe the answer’s to do with the area’s political history and persistent tensions, but I obviously can’t be sure. It did get me thinking, though. On the one hand, I know historical and cultural geographers have done a lot of work on memorials, although this is not a literature I read much. I suspect most of this literature asks about the meaning of the memorial, why they were erected, and how they influence our views of the past. But to what extent does that literature engage with the destruction of memorials? I’m sure there’s a literature on the significance of fallen statues to Lenin or Stalin in post-Soviet Eastern Europe; but is there much else and are there Irish examples? I suppose the story of Nelson’s Pillar is an obvious one.

Beyond this, the story reminded me of two other vandalized memorials I’ve come across. The first one was on the Tropic of Capricorn, in Limpopo Province, South Africa. There was a total solar eclipse there in 2002 and so the municipality had erected a small memorial to the event. Now, who knows who it was or when they did it, but since that time some folks had used the small plaque as target practice! I’ve inserted a photo below.


Of course, this was a relatively benign act of vandalism: nothing of much historical significance was commemorated; the memorial hardly had a political presence on the landscape; few tears would have been shed when it was erected or upon hearing of its destruction. It’s not by any means in the same category of vandalism and disrespect as what happened to the Brendan Hughes memorial.

But just a few miles north of the plaque-come-target-practice, in Louis Trichardt, there is another memorial that was victim of an attack. This was a statue of Makhado, a late 19th century Venda King – the Vhavenda were among the indigenous peoples who lived in and around present-day Louis Trichardt and the wider area. To commemorate Makhado, the municipal authorities in Louis Trichardt had decided to re-name the town after him. The statue was erected as part of that process. However, less than a week after the statue was unveiled in 2006, vandals defaced it by painting it in the colours of the old South African flag. The attack reflected the intense feelings about the name change, especially among the town’s white population and its business community which felt the name change would cost more than it would benefit the local economy (and who fought and won a legal case to have the town’s name changed back to Louis Trichardt). Below, there’s an image of the painted statue taken from the local Zoutpansberger newspaper and then another of the cleaned up statue I took when I was there in 2007.




I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of vandalized memorials from around Ireland or beyond that you might know of. If so, perhaps you could post some details in the comments section – alternatively, post details of geographical scholarship that touches on this sort of issue.

Alistair Fraser

ps. This was our blog’s 100th post. The first post was written on March 5th 2009 – we’re almost two years old. I think around about ten staff members have contributed and at least three students have also written posts. The blog has been viewed just over 21,000 times.


One comment

  1. Interesting comment. I think it’s possible that there are multiple traces/positionalities to be found in any one memorial site. So for example, the site in Omeath which was the location for a memorial to a hunger striker, might also be perceived on the other side of the bay as being very close to a site from which a mortar attack killed a nine RUC officers in 1985. This is not intended to condone or condemn either act, merely to point out that there are multiple, and often contesting, memories to be encountered in any site or setting.


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